In case of emergency
When it comes to the federal budget, $900,000 is less than a drop in the bucket. Maybe a drop in the ocean. But for emergency responders around the country, one $900,000 budget cut by the Department of Homeland Security could make the difference between finding essential information instantly or searching for it in the pages of a notebook — the difference between life or death.
The program in question is E-Plan, based at the University of Texas at Dallas. E-Plan collects the chemical reports that companies are required to file — listing the hazardous substances they use or store, mapping where they are in the building, etc. — and makes the information available online through a secure network.
Unfortunately, Homeland Security has cut the $900,000 it spent annually on E-Plan from its budget, and people like Frank Thomason, director of Emergency Services in Rowan County, worry about the consequences. “I personally am gravely concerned,” Thomason said.
First responders find using E-Plan much more efficient than the old system of having companies fill out paper forms that local emergency services had to duplicate and send out to agencies. Firefighters did not have a quick way to check out possible chemical hazards at a site they were going to. As one Texas firefighter said, “Most of them rely basically on a three-ring binder in the cab of the firetruck.”
North Carolina has participated in E-Plan for about five years. In Rowan, 103 sites are required to report the chemicals they manufacture, store or transport. They input their information directly into E-Plan’s database, and first responders have easy access online.
The result is the nation’s largest database of chemical and facility hazards data — one that emergency responders don’t want to lose.
“I’m in prayer mode,” Sylvia Hoffner said at a recent meeting of the Rowan County Local Emergency Planning Committee. Hoffner is administrative secretary for Rowan Emergency Services. If no one comes to the rescue of E-Plan before funding runs out at the end of August, she’ll have to return to managing paper reports on hazardous chemicals from all over Rowan County. “Several of our chemical companies have pages and pages,” she said.
Someone must intervene to ensure that E-Plan doesn’t disappear at the end of the month. Julia Jarema, communications officer for N.C. Emergency Management, says the states are trying to come up with a Plan B to keep the database going. President Obama signed an executive order earlier this month aimed at improving chemical facility safety and security. If E-Plan isn’t part of that initiative, it should at least stay in place until Homeland Security and EPA develop something even better. First responders deserve nothing less.